Sunday, September 29, 2002



Sam Choy put island
cuisine on the map

He says the popularity of Hawaii's
isle style will continue to grow

By Pat Omandam

In the last decade, award-winning chef, author and restaurateur Sam Choy made Hawaii regional cuisine as familiar as the word "aloha" on the mainland and abroad.

His is just one of several native-owned businesses that have helped shape the Hawaii we know today.

"I kind of remember specifically back then. Nobody was really into talking about the local kinds of food and mixing local things, products," said Choy, who opened his first restaurant in 1981.

"And today that's a hot topic."

So hot that Choy -- who lives in Kona with wife Carol; two sons, Sam Jr. and Christopher; a granddaughter, Samantha; and six dogs -- is constantly flying across country to do what comes naturally: promoting Hawaii's unique culinary delights.

To date, Choy, 50, has nine restaurants in Guam, Japan and Hawaii. He is the author of several top-selling cookbooks and can be seen on his weekly TV cooking chow, "Sam Choy's Kitchen."

Chef Sam Choy hard at work hosting a cooking class at his namesake Diamond Head restaurant in Kapahulu.

Choy is so much in demand the cable Food Network Web site lists his biography among its celebrity chefs and hosts.

In 1999, Choy was named one of the "50 tastemakers Influencing America" by Nation's Restaurant News. He's also been a nominee several times for the James Beard Best Pacific Regional Chef award.

"I just feel honestly that Hawaii has really come to the limelight of food. We're just handicapped by 2,400 miles and about three to six hours of time zone. But if it wasn't for that, I think we would be as big as New York or bigger," he said.

"You look at it really simple, right. Where's our front porch? Our front porch is the West Coast, the continental U.S. Where's our back door? Our back door is Asia.

"You know what? They all meet right here in Hawaii."

Choy's love for cooking was instilled early on by his family. His Hawaiian-German mother, Clairemoana, and his Chinese father, Hung Sam Choy, helped put on luaus for as many as 800 people in Laie. Food preparation soon became second nature, and after studying culinary arts at Kapiolani Community College, Choy honed his skills working in Waikiki hotels before starting his own restaurant chain.

Choy remains actively involved in the community through youth-oriented programs with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the state Department of Education.

Choy said it is difficult for him to say what kind of impact he has had on the community. He points to the work of the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose music continues to gain popularity after his death.

"Iz is a good example," Choy said.

"His music is still living on, and he's gone. And he had his ups and downs in the music world."

"Until you're dead, then you can't really realize how much an impact you had."

Looking ahead to a decade from now, Choy sees Hawaii cuisine just as popular as anything else dished up in New York. And he sees his business doing just fine.

"I think I brought a lot of the things out of the closet. I think I brought out the local foods from the closet," Choy said.

Cookin' with Sam

Name: Sam Choy

Age: 50

Residence: Kona, Hawaii

Business: Chef, restaurateur and author. Restaurants include Sam Choy's Diamond Head Restaurant; Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch, Crab & Big Aloha Brewery in Iwilei; Sam Choy's Kalolo in Kailua-Kona; Sam Choy's Guam and Sam Choy's Tokyo.

First restaurant: 1981

Employees: 217

Sam Choy's

E-mail to City Desk


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